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Rats in the security world

Let's start with email

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Not too long ago my wife and I decided to try out a Chinese restaurant in our area we had never visited before. I was looking at the menu and my wife gasped, then laughed a bit. I looked up and she pointed out a rat crawling right under the restaurant's buffet table.

I got the waitress's attention and pointed out the rat to her. The waitress, a large Asian woman with a heavy oriental accent replied, "Oh ya' his name is Tock." She giggled a bit then walked off.

My wife and I looked at each other. She tightened her lips, trying to hold back the laughter. She nodded her head to the side and we quickly got up and walked out of the restaurant.

We got a good laugh out of it, but I couldn't help wondering how long the rat had been around before they decided to name it. I guess rats too can be pets once you get used to them around - but they are grossly out of place in a restaurant.

It turned out to be a good lesson because I began to see different kinds of rats around me all the time. The computer industry is especially full of rats. It's amazing how much we have learned to put up with. In the computer world, for example, it's not at all unusual for something to work one day and then suddenly stop working the next. And it wouldn't be that unusual if it suddenly started working again the third day.

We have been well conditioned to recognize and delete the endless stream of spam, phishing attempts, Nigerian scams, and virus attacks we get every day in our inboxes. We have been so far behind for so long in the battle with computer security that we have almost forgotten some of the most basic insecurities that we put up with day after day.

I say it's now time we took a step back and exterminated some of these rats.

The biggest rat is email. How have we put up with our current technology for so many years? Email is by nature completely insecure. There's no guaranteed authentication of either the sender or the recipient. Most -mail traffic is never encrypted as it traverses its way around the Internet. Many email servers still don't encrypt stored messages, and there is no way to ensure that your email isn't bounced, quarantined, rejected, or forwarded on to the wrong person. In fact, there is no guarantee of delivery or notification of failed delivery at all. Furthermore, email client software is vulnerable to a variety of attacks, and of course email is still the best form of social engineering.

Email is the carrier pigeon of the internet, yet so many people rely on it for business critical and sensitive communications that are insecure and often, unreliable.

Fixing email could potentially eliminate many other security problems. And we certainly do have today the technology to make it all happen. So what's the holdup? I say that it's simply because we haven't forced people to change. And that probably won't happen until the problem has grown completely out of control. Let's be smart this time around and fix email before it grows to a bigger problem than it already is.

Many say that such an infrastructure change would take years. But guess what, this is the Internet world. We are used to changing overnight. We can handle it, trust me.

While we're at it, let's just abandon [I]all[/I] insecure network protocols. For every insecure protocol, there is an encrypted version, so why even keep the insecure protocols around? Why even install telnet when there's SSH? Why use FTP instead of SFTP? And what about instant messengers, plus IRC, NNTP, SNMP, and all the other unencrypted protocols? Boycott them all. Sure, you might say that we need to support these protocols for backwards compatibility. While that makes sense for now, we need to set some future date when we will phase these out, otherwise they will never leave us. Who wants to be backwards compatible with insecurity anyway?

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